Gaining Speed – Part 2

Transcript of the podcast published on May 7th, 2011.

Last show I was talking about the necessity to get the right speed rating for your game when designing it. This time I want to give you some examples.

Take ”7 Ages” for example, a great if still unwieldy game of empires and conquest – when reading the designer’s diary one will find a statement by Harry Rowland, that in its original form the game had each empire go through all possible phases in its turn – production, movement, combat, fate, progress, etc.. This of course meant that the other players would idly watch while one player spent a lot of time doing fiddly things with often no consequence to the other players. At one point Rowland decided that he would limit each empire action to only one of these – this already was a great idea, if not a radical design decision. But this was still not good enough. So Rowland decided to make the selection of actions simultaneous and secret for all players involved. Simultaneous selection of something is always a good idea, as it means that all players can mutually do something that is of relevance, even if it is not in direct communication with another player. It adds two interesting aspects: speed, of course, and also mystery, as in a good game design one should always be guessing about the other player’s motives.

This worked great for “7 Ages”. While I select my empire’s actions I ask myself: will my neighbor be peaceful this turn? Or will he attack me? Should I attack first? So even though I don’t necessarily talk with another player during this selection it is an indirect form of competitive communication, and this is an important element in any game.

I had a similar problem with my game “XX”, formerly known as the “20th Century” until some evil usurping Eastern-European-game designers stole my title. In its original form the game was just mega-long, and each player had a lot of actions to ponder while the others were waiting and doing nothing. Some BGG con visitors of four years back might remember this version painfully.

One of the main design goals is of course elegance and speed – in reworking the game concepts I tried to think about what elements I deemed important and what not. Many ideas were neat, like the effects of population or catastrophes in my game about the history of the 20th century. But I could go two ways – either keep them and develop them, which meant the game would become longer and more complicated, or leave them away and concentrate on the things I really liked. In a painful process I whittled down the possible player actions to only three different ones: getting involved in wars, using diplomacy to place influence in countries and playing a card as an event.

Now I still had the problem that this would mean that each player would have to ponder this decision when it came to his or her turn. The game state might have changed in a way that would make a new pondering period necessary – and again non-involved players would have to wait. I decided to create action cards that had all three actions on them, and how you placed them in front of you (meaning how you would orientate the card) would show to other players what action you would play. With these cards I could now introduce a simultaneous selection phase, like in “7 Ages”. Each player would secretly select his card action for the turn at the same time as the other players and then turn the card over to show his decision when it was his or her go. This introduced second-guessing and mystery and an immense speed gain to the design. You still had the freedom about how exactly you would play your action – this is important as nobody wants to be on autopilot when it comes to an individual action – but you had already made some of your choices. It is a simple insight for game designers that choices are good, but too many choices bog down a game and might make it too brainy or ultra-competitive, like chess or go, games which are sciences in itself and in which sometimes you can wait for a long time until your opponent has done a move. If ever. Finding the sweet spot between too limited decision trees and too many options is the biggest challenge of a game designer.

It is interesting that simple house rules can have a great effect on speed. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t play Carcassonne without one simple house rule that is not stated in the original rules: don’t turn over a new tile when it’s your turn but draw it secretly at the end of your turn instead and place it at the beginning of your next turn. This makes a huge difference, as it gives you the complete turn to think about your placement. Even though last-minute plays by your opponents can ruin your plans you still will have a much better grasp of the situation than if you simply reacted to a completely new tile on the spot. It’s a house rule that I strongly recommend!